Define the Habit: Automating Habits, Part 1

This post is part 1 of a three-part series on automating habits. You can find an introduction to the series here. Links to the other two parts will be added as they appear.

Have you ever had a long, tiring day, and when you go to start cooking dinner, you discover that some critical step you were supposed to do earlier—start the crockpot, thaw the fish, marinate the chicken—just completely slipped your mind? It’s terrible. Disappointment, hunger, and exhaustion blend into a feeding-yourself crisis.

This has happened to me enough times that I have resolved to start thinking of cooking dinner as an activity that starts in the morning, not right before dinnertime. So I made myself an every-day to-do list item: “Do any dinner advance prep,” thinking that if I could learn to check it off every day, I would learn not to make these mistakes.

But I didn’t. The problem was that even if something went wrong, I could still always check “Do any dinner advance prep” off my list, because whatever we did end up having for dinner (even if it was takeout) would by necessity have had its advance prep completed. This habit was impossible to fail, and so I never learned to succeed.

What I needed to do was make these two components of my habit precise:

  1. What exactly I was going to do (the advance prep for what I had planned to eat, not what I ended up eating), and
  2. When exactly I was going to do it (in the morning, not just “before we eat”).

In fact, the more precise, the better, and there are other features a good “what” and “when” will have too. Let’s look at each component in turn.

1. Define the “what”

Two features make a good “what” for your habit: specific and small. We’ve already touched on how “do any dinner advance prep” wasn’t specific enough: something always ended up fitting that description. Better would be “do any advance prep for the meal listed on the calendar” (we keep our meal plans on an ordinary wall calendar near the kitchen).

The second feature that makes a good “what” is starting small. It’s hard to make a complex process automatic for two reasons:

  • You effectively have to memorize the whole process, and the longer and more complicated the process is, the harder it is to memorize.
  • A bigger process is more daunting, so it’s harder to commit to the whole thing over and over while you’re building the habit.

Both problems are solved by breaking down the desired habit into steps and working on one at a time. Let’s break down the “dinner prep” habit into its steps:

  1. Look at today’s meal plan to see what’s for dinner.
  2. Decide what advance prep is necessary for it.
  3. Do that advance prep.

So a good choice for the automatic habit we should build first is that step 1: “Look at today’s meal plan to see what’s for dinner.” That’s easy enough to commit to doing every day without being daunted. And most of the time, that’ll probably remind us to do steps 2 and 3 too, though I imagine we’ll occasionally decide that we’d rather forgo the prep and have takeout anyway—as long as we’re working on just that first habit, that’s fine. Eventually, once step 1 has become automatic, we can decide whether it’s worth it to automate the other two steps.

I try to do this with all my automatic habits: choose the smallest version to start with, and be specific about what it means. I recently started a habit of going to the gym, and right now, that means “Literally go to the gym even if you choose to walk right back out again.” That’s a small enough goal that I can commit to doing it regularly, even though once I’m there, I almost always choose to exercise anyway. Eventually I’ll commit to a more detailed gym procedure. One of my other long-term habit goals is to wash the dishes after every meal, rather than letting them pile up: as of now, I’ve automated the first step (“Put away yesterday’s clean dishes”) and I’m working on the second (“Make sure all the day’s dishes are washed by the end of the day”). After that, I’ll work on washing the breakfast dishes right after breakfast, and then move on to the other meals in turn.

2. Define the “when”

The other component to a habit is when you will do it, or more generally, under what circumstances. It’s not enough to look at the meal plan—I have to look in the morning!

Like the habit’s “what,” its “when” component also benefits from being specific, but where the habit’s “what” should be such a low threshold it’s almost impossible not to succeed, the habit’s “when” should be so specific that you have to try hard not to fail. Blink-and-you-miss-it hard—you want to deprive your brain of time to hem and haw over whether you’ll do it now or later.

Your habit’s “when” should also be regular—at least as regular as you want your habit to be. If the “when” you choose isn’t regular enough to rely on, not only will your automatic habit be unreliable too, but the habit will be harder to automate in the first place if you aren’t able to trust the system you’re building.

Finally, the “when” should be opportune, in the sense of creating an opportunity for your habit. “As soon as you get into the car” is a specific time that may occur regularly, but if that’s the moment you remember to brush your teeth, it’s too late. To borrow the language of Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” you are choosing a cue for your habit, something that will trigger you to respond with the desired behavior: your habit’s “what.”

So what will the dinner prep habit look like when we add a good “when”? How about, “Look at the meal plan before leaving the house in the morning”? No, this fails all three counts: It’s not specific, because there are many different times in the morning you could fulfill this habit without creating the consistency that is crucial for an automatic habit. Second, if there are mornings where you don’t leave the house, but you still want to do the dinner advance prep on those days, your habit’s “when” isn’t regular enough either. And finally, it’s not opportune: If your goal is to leave yourself enough time to do any necessary prep work, you can’t let yourself just check on the way out the door.

Here’s a better version: “Look at the meal plan when you stand up after finishing breakfast.” As long as you sit down to eat breakfast every day, this habit’s “when” is specific and regular enough that it occurs exactly as often as you want the habit to, and “right after breakfast” is a good time to start a new project (as long as you don’t have to immediately rush out the door).

Here are some other examples of habits I’ve automated that used specific, reliable, opportune cues: can you see each habit’s “what” and “when”?

  • Making the bed as soon as I get out of it.
  • Putting away yesterday’s clean dishes when I first enter the kitchen in the morning.
  • Going to the gym at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • Tidying my workspace at the end of each workday.
  • Ten minutes before I have to leave to go somewhere, wrapping up what I’m doing and not starting anything new.
  • Brushing my teeth on my first trip to the bathroom after 9:00 p.m.
  • Flossing my teeth immediately after brushing them in the evening. (This is another example of breaking down a more complex evening routine into pieces I could automate one at a time. Since then I’ve also inserted “Wash your glasses” between the brushing and flossing.)

Note: a habit’s “when” doesn’t have to refer to a specific time: it can depend on other things you do or places you go, as long as those happen as often as you need them to. On the other hand, if you can’t think of a good “when” for your habit, it might not be a good candidate for automation. This isn’t a bad thing—it just means the brainpower you’ve spent on making sure the job gets done has been necessary, and if you’re trying to free up mental energy you should focus your efforts elsewhere.

Defining your habit’s “what” and “when” creates what is called an implementation intention, especially when phrased in the form “When <X happens>, I will do <Y>.” Implementation intentions powerfully increase followthrough for general decisions, not just habits you are trying to build, and just creating an implementation intention for your habit may be enough to automate it. If not, stay tuned for the next post in this series, which is on using records, reminders, and rewards to build consistency.

Speaking of which, there’s one more component to a good habit that will be important for using rewards well: why you’re doing the habit in the first place.

3. Define the “why”

There was a reason I wanted to do the dinner advance prep earlier in the day: I wanted to avoid the terrible feeling of having to make a whole new plan for dinner when I was already tired and hungry. But there’s an easier solution to that problem than painstakingly building an automatic habit—namely, keep emergency cans of soup or boxes of mac ‘n cheese in the cupboard for just such an occasion—and in fact that’s what we did, and still do, just in case. However, this solution doesn’t really satisfy us, because we’d prefer not to fill our diets with junk food or things we can make more cheaply ourselves. In other words, we wanted to live up to our values of making frugal and healthful choices for our meals.

Here are some of the underlying “whys” for habits I’ve built—even if you have the same habits, your “whys” might be different:

  • Taking care of the dishes: I want to spend my life not dreading the chores I dislike.
  • Going to the gym: I want to be keep being able to participate in my friends’ and family’s lives as I age.
  • Tidying my workspace: I want to make profound contributions to my field, and being able to think deeply and clearly requires a clutter-free space in which to work.
  • Brushing and flossing earlier in the evening: I want to rest well at night in order to be fully present the next day, and putting off my evening toilette was one reason I stayed up later than I intended.

On the other hand, some habits I’ve contemplated adopting I couldn’t think of a “why” that connected with my values, and I only wanted to do them because they appeared on a list of “the 16 best habits successful people do before they wake up” or something like that. We’ll see next time that an important part of the habit-building process is reminding yourself why you’re doing it in the first place.

Your turn!

Here’s your homework:

  • Think of something you’ve been meaning to do more regularly, but haven’t made a plan that works yet.
  • Decide what the “why” for your habit is. You may have to dig down a few layers until you get something that connects with what’s important to you.
  • Make an implementation intention: “When <X happens>, I will do <Y>”. Choose a small but specific “Y” to start with, and a specific, regular, opportune “X”.

I’d love to hear what your new plan is in the comments!


3 thoughts on “Define the Habit: Automating Habits, Part 1

    1. Hah! No, you were a fantastic office-mate, and my deep work hero! Your frequent ponder-walks and experiments in technology-aided research have been a huge inspiration to me to try various things and see what makes a difference in my life. It turns out that clearing a space to work in helps me think more clearly too (as much as tidying doesn’t come naturally to me), but your side of the desk never bothered me in the slightest!

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    2. Also, I didn’t mean to suggest that a clutter-free space being necessary for deep thinking is true for everyone (in fact, I know for some people it’s the opposite). I’ve just found it to be true for me.

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